Why we need to pull at work (and not push)!

For those who are familiar with manufacturing environments and production planning, the two words, push and pull reserve a whole lot of significance, which are the subject of this article.

For those who are familiar with white-collar work environments and were not involved in production planning ever, the two words, push and pull reserve a whole lot of different significance, but please note that this discussion is not about pushing people at work (and out of your way) or pulling people at work, but merely an attempt to elaborate on the subject stated above.

For those who are reading this simply because of ‘pull at work’ in the title, please put your mind and brain to some good use, and carry on reading.

So, with that cleared up, lets understand how this push-pull concept can help managers to develop better plans and actually improve the programme delivery.

Though Taaiichi Ohno introduced us to KANBAN in the mid 1950s, it's only recently seen an application in the non-production environments.

Traditional production planning uses forecasts and estimates to determine how much to produce. Such a production planning system is less responsive and often unaware of changes in actual demand (internal - from the following workstations or external - from the market) at any given time. This type of production system is described as a ‘Push’ production system.

The KANBAN technique is more responsive and is ’demand aware’. It uses signals (internal - from the following workstations or external - from the market) to determine when to start (or stop) production aims to deliver it ‘on demand’ thus reducing waste resulting from overproduction. Such a system is described as ‘Pull’ production system.

Now that we understand the basic concept of ‘Push’ and ‘Pull’ production, let’s see how it can be used in project environments.

In a project environment, people are often required to produce documents and reports. Those who work in typical engineering functions, will sympathise with me, if I rephrased this as …required to ‘over produce’ documentation. 

Traditionally, people await communications and plans from the managers. Once they know what is required and by when it needs to be produced, they define a process (often an expedited version of standard protocol to meet deadlines) and then start preparing the documents. The process involves preparing and review phases, delegated to different individuals who work independent of each other. The delivery pressures, deviations from standard process and under defined requirements often lead to a lot of rework and rejection. This scenario is very similar to traditional ‘Push’ system, difficult to control and heavily depends on reactive management to provide results.

Learning from previous discussions, we know that a better alternative is provided by the ‘Pull’ system. Let’s understand how to implement it in a project environment.

1. Recognise your signals 

In a ‘Pull’ system, the production is done on demand, on receipt of a signal. Such ‘signals’ need to be clearly defined in the process framework of the project; e.g. ‘completion of a project milestone’, ‘contract issue’ or ‘selection of a supplier’. The organisation needs to make these signal visible to the people. Such signals create ‘demand’ to start or stop the work.

2. Define your processes and cycle times

The Pull systems responds to the signals by initiating processes. Moreover, well defined processes with known cycle time set the Pull system apart from the Push system. The managers must define each process segment and associated time for every expected work product. Once the demand is received, then people start the standard process cycle with a fixed expected delivery time. Any deviations or blockers should be escalated to the management for them to resolve. Planning is minimal in this case (unlike the Push system) and key focus is on ensuring the processes are being followed.

3. Visualise your progress

It is equally important that processes visually indicate the status of their work. At AVION, we like the ‘ring’ pie-charts that show a simple R-A-G scale and a percentage against each segment to indicate, stopped (Red), delayed (Amber) and on-time (Green) tasks. The management must facilitate the amber and red tasks by eliminating blockers. It is also important that internal teams are aware of the status of work that will be delivered to them.

4. Train your people

Training is the most ignored part in any project, yet very little recognition is offered to it. It does not have to be an elaborate affair, but all people involved in the project must be given some coaching and time to learn, how the wheels turn, especially how to react to the Red, Amber and Green signals from the team immediately before and after their own work stream.

5. Utilise the ‘waiting’ resource

Where delays and rework is inevitable, identify those resources who are waiting and utilise them to expedite the previous process stages. This requires a certain willingness from the people, first to help others and second, to accept the help offered in a gracious manner. Again, the management needs to create an awareness for such behaviour and reward it to nurture it.

6. Manage contingency

Over allocation to mitigate a risk is an expensive affair. A Pull system will always provide a good indication of feasibility of achieving the set deadlines for delivery. The management must use this information to raise a dialogue with the end customer, in the event of an inevitable delay. It’s bad enough not to deliver on time, but it’s worse to disclose that to the customer on the delivery day! The pull system also makes it possible to see where additional resources are necessary. Adding temporary resource to manage the contingency can get you well out of trouble, before things turn sour and unrecoverable.

And finally to sum it up, in a Pull system, management does focus on over-perfecting the plans but it provides well defined processes with rational cycle times, provides mechanisms to escalate and control non-conformities. Detailed planning and execution is done at the lower levels by the contributors, not to deliver but to control, review and report.

At AVION, we love planning and facilitating projects in all stages, from early bidding to post DDR delivery. Our engineers can help you define the necessary plans, processes and metrics to readily avail the benefits of resource efficient delivery.

So, stop Pushing and start Pulling at work.


B.Eng, MSc, CEng, MIMechE

Vijay is a Principal Systems Engineering Consultant. He is an expert systems integrator with wealth of experience in system architecture, requirements management, validation and verification. He has delivered complex and safety critical projects in the Aerospace and Railways industries. He has developed skills through extensive hands on work in manufacturing, design, analysis and test roles and really liked for his amicable personality and can do attitude.

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